Whether you are drawn to its promise of idle indulgence, enjoy sipping fine wines, or have a penchant for visiting world-renowned restaurants, Sonoma County is the latest ‘it’ destination for those looking for a country-chic weekend.
If you were considering a long-weekend escape to California’s wine country, Sonoma County might not be the first area that comes to mind. Sandwiched between the better-known Napa Valley to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Sonoma County has long been home to celebrated vintners, but a recent culinary influx has left the once sleepy county rivaling its better-known neighbor. The two wine-growing regions offer a very different welcome to visiting oenophiles. Acclimatize to Sonoma County’s laid-back lifestyle with a stop in Healdsburg before heading west, working your way along the Russian River that flows through the county all the way to the ocean. Along the way are wineries for tastings, quaint places to dine, and plenty of natural wonders to explore.
From winery-owned guesthouses to luxury boutique hotels, the influx of upscale San Franciscans to Sonoma County has led to a marked increase in the supply of stylish and comfortable accommodations for the better-heeled traveler. If you can visit during the start or end of Cabernet season (harvest) when the weather is still warm, you will have your choice of rooms, tables, tastings and spas.
Spend a few nights in the historic 19th-century town of Healdsburg in the north of Sonoma County. Flanked by the Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander Valley, the town is a popular destination for oenophiles and has become a hub for wine-country fare.
Set in the historic town square, Hotel Healdsburg is a welcoming and contemporary boutique hotel. Go for one of their oversized rooms with décor details that complement the property’s picturesque surroundings. If you are planning a spring visit to Sonoma County, then try and coincide with Charlie Palmer’s annual Pigs & Pinot event – a charity event hosted at the hotel’s on-site restaurant, Dry Creek Kitchen. For those looking for 19th-century grandeur, the Victorian mansion Madrona Manor is just a few minutes from downtown Healdsburg. Set in eight wooded acres overlooking Dry Creek Valley, the hotel is suffused with character and charm. Book into one of the Schoolhouse Suites, on the edge of the property, complete with Jacuzzi and private deck area. In stark contrast to its antique furnishings and décor, the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant delivers a contemporary menu, inspired by the estate’s garden produce.
For those looking to get closer to nature on the shores of the Russian River, AutoCamp is camping without sacrificing a whit of comfort (glamping in its highest form). Custom-designed Airstream trailers and spacious tents the size of small buildings blend beautiful design and luxury with nature.
The Timber Cove Resort has always been a sought-after retreat and a few years ago the 1960s property was respectfully renovated, keeping many of the original features and combining them with contemporary design touches. Perched on the Pacific Coast just outside the small town of Jenner, this coastal retreat boasts stunning sea views and is surrounded by more than 25 acres of rugged coastline and a backdrop of redwood trees. After a day exploring, foraging, hiking (guided), or even kayaking, retire to the property’s restaurant, Coast Kitchen, one of the best on the North Coast.
Eat, Drink & Dance
Drinking wine is obviously de rigueur when in Sonoma County, and the choice of vineyards and tastings are plenty. Wineries have deep roots in the valley’s culture; it is, after all, where California’s wine industry began. Vineyards sprawl across foothills and ridges, backed by parklands.Sip a dry rosé while seated in the vineyards by the winemaker’s home, sample zinfandel by the vats from which it was produced, taste chardonnay from aged barrels or pinots by the river; Sonoma Valley is made up of varying terrain, diverse soils and microclimates with several stunning varietals grown for a broad portfolio, making it
a haven for oenophiles.
Hungarian-born Count Agoston Haraszthy first launched the Buena Vista winery in 1857. Listed as a Californian Historic Landmark, Buena Vista’s tasting room pours several varietals, but the best way to soak up the atmosphere is to enjoy a tasting with the winery’s delicious picnic hamper in the cobblestone courtyard.
For a chilled afternoon tasting, fans of cabernets should drop by Gundlach Bundschu. The family-run winery has a low-key atmosphere and tastings are offered in the stunning picnic grounds of the winery. If you are lucky enough to be in the area in June, you might find yourself sipping chilled gewürztraminer while listening to Coachella-style bands at the Huichica Music Festival, hosted by the fifth generation of the Bundschu family on the grassy hillside of their 300-acre farm.
Set in the foothills of Sonoma Mountain, the Benziger Family Winery is one of the most successful biodynamic vineyards in California. The farm follows biodynamic principles to produce rich red blends from the estate-grown grapes. The sister winery, Imagery Estate, also is worth a visit for its award-winning wines from rarely grown grapes.
For a break from the grape, there are a number of cocktail venues in Sonoma County, including the Geyserville Gun Club Bar & Lounge. Here, six-guns and Winchester rifles have been traded for frosty Gibson cocktails in this rustic lounge bar just north of Santa Rosa.
Enjoying the locally produced wines is the main reason for any visit to Sonoma County, but the area also is known for its world-class cuisine. Pioneering the farm-to-table ethos, a movement that has spread not just through America but worldwide, Sonoma County — in particular the small city of Healdsburg — has a gastronomic scene to rival that of nearby San Francisco and Portland.
Embracing Japanese hospitality and cuisine, SingleThread is a boutique property with a pilgrimage-worthy restaurant. Produce from the farm’s own fields is used in three different tasting menus that have been thoughtfully conjured up by the owners who spent years learning their trade on the ground in Japan, only to return to their native California (via the Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant in Berkshire, England) to share their creations with Sonoma County.
Dry Creek Kitchen at Hotel Healdsburg is another of the town’s restaurants that delivers an exotic menu using locally sourced produce. Chef/Owner Charlie Palmer is well known for his creative cooking spirit and unexpected combinations, accompanied by pairings of Sonoma County’s best wines. If you’re dining here for lunch, then secure a spot outside to watch Healdsburg society drift by.
If the farm-to-table ethos has taken your fancy, there are several one-day cookery classes at the Relish Culinary School in downtown Healdsburg. Choose from all manner of locally influenced courses, including cheese making and mushroom foraging. For a smaller vineyard tour, sip away at the stunningly restored 19th-century homestead Scribe Winery. Reserve your wine tasting late afternoon and follow on with a lavish dinner paired with the estate-grown chardonnay.